About fifteen minutes into the new documentary Resistance, the late Professor Richard Freund approaches a glass case with a century-old milk jug inside. The jug is corroded and rusted and the color of the dark stone walls around it. Inside the unremarkable container was hidden something remarkable: a large part of the contemporaneously written account of life in the Warsaw Ghetto. “It’s the equivalent of, for the first time, seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Freund says. “The difference is this is so close to our own era, and to know that Jews have been documenting and preserved it, like a message in a bottle, for future generations.”

Resistance: They Fought Back, directed by Paula Apsell and Kirk Wolfinger and written by Apsell and Jay Owens, spends a lot of time on the written word. It’s the story of Jews who fought the Nazi murder machine, and while there is a section dedicated to the much-heralded armed partisans in the forests of Belarus, made famous in movies like Defiance, the lesson of the film is that spiritual and intellectual resistance are prerequisites to effective armed rebellion—and that the Jews of Europe excelled across all three. “People have this myth stuck in their heads that the Jews went to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter.” A myth is exactly what it was.

There are moments in Resistance, which premiers in New York today and in Los Angeles on May 10, when the connections between the head and the heart and the hand is shown in literal terms. In Vilna, Lithuania, the Nazis sought to confiscate all Jewish books and artifacts for the museum they would build about the Jews once all Jews were exterminated. Some members of the ghetto who were forced to transport the materials saved books and manuscripts and other items. One day, the Paper Brigade, as they were known, recovered a Finnish bombmaking manual. They took it to resistance leader Abba Kovner, who built a primitive bomb. Vitka Kempner took that bomb and planted it well outside the ghetto under the railroad tracks. In the middle of the night, a German train rolled over it and exploded. Thus begins their training for the Vilna Ghetto uprising.

Kempner’s diary notes are read by the stage actress Julie Benko. Kovner’s are voiced by Corey Stoll. Maggie Siff and Dianna Agron are among other actors who give voice to the Jewish heroes in the film. This is a surprisingly effective device, pairing familiar voices with familiar names (even though those voices and names belong to different people).

Agron voices the most compelling figure in the entire documentary: Bela Hazan. Many Jewish ghettos revolted against the Nazis, but they were mostly cut off from the world, and certainly each other. Couriers, then, were the only way to communicate. The job required courage: They were spies, Jewish women living as Christians and moving weapons and contraband into Jewish towns under Nazi occupation and sometimes smuggling people out of the ghettos. The brave and beautiful Hazan, at age 19, takes a job as a Gestapo interpreter and uses her access to steal documents and stamps that are then used in Vilna to create false papers for Jews. One Christmas Eve, a Gestapo officer invites her and her two friends (both fellow undercover couriers) to a Christmas party. Likely smitten with Hazan, he takes the girls’ picture. One of them later would be caught with the photo on her way to deliver guns and information to the Warsaw underground from Bialystok. When she didn’t return, Hazan followed after her—and the Germans were waiting for her, too.

Hazan was tortured and thrown in solitary confinement, then sent on to Auschwitz—but as a Polish Catholic prisoner suspected of membership in the Polish underground. As the war turned against Germany, she was taken on two forced marches to other camps. After the evacuation of the last camp she was in, Hazan helped more than a hundred prisoners escape to the American zone in Leipzig.

Jews rose up in ghettos across Europe, and the documentary does a good job making that known and pointing out that we only know of rebellions where there were survivors to talk about it. But of course Warsaw and Vilna stand out. In Warsaw, Vladka Meed snuck out of the ghetto and began procuring weapons, in small numbers, for the resistance. In January 1943, the resistance skirmished with German soldiers. Three months later, on the first night of Passover, the uprising began. Caught off guard, the Germans had to retreat twice. “The dream of my life has become a reality,” wrote uprising commander Mordecai Anielewicz. “I have lived to see Jewish self-defense in the ghetto in all of its greatness and splendor.”

In Riga, said one uprising survivor, there were two options: undress and stand at the edge of the pit and wait for the bullet, or resist. In the latter case, you’d probably die anyway, but “that would be a different death.”

And it was a different life, too. By risking their lives to create schools, symphonies, libraries and the like within the ghetto walls, the Jews resisted from the very beginning. Armed resistance was a last resort, but merely by living as Jews, with dignity and faith, they were in a constant state of resistance. That is probably the most important lesson of the film and its subject.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link